After an absence of nine years, helmer Kohei Oguri returns with “The Buried Forest,” an attractive meditation on the ways storytelling can both explain and enrich the everyday. Carefully controlled HD lensing and meticulous framing are hallmarks of pic, which features elements of magic realism that lend a slightly fey quality to the slow moving tale. Unlikely to make the kind of critical splash of Oguri’s earlier works, pic will find roots in fest soil but planting in other fields is doubtful.
Given the narrative emphasis on the importance of weaving tales in a small country town, comparisons to “Big Fish” are inevitable, but Oguri takes a more intimate tone with none of the braggadocio associated with Tim Burton’s fantasy.
Three teenage girls attempt to embroider their rather average lives by starting a round-robin storytelling game: Each girl picks up the yarn from where her friend left off. At first the girls incorporate real local characters, but soon their imaginations take over.
Oguri doesn’t illustrate these yarns, nor does he show the other tales — tales of the older townspeople, whose stories are actually histories passed down rather than invented sagas.
The two forms of storytelling — the fantasies and the memories — begin to connect when Machi (single-moniker actress Karen) and a friend listen to an old woman (Sumiko Sakamoto) complaining about to being moved to a nursing home.
A nighttime disturbance deep in the surrounding forest prompts the townsfolk to band together and investigate. In the woods, they find a great light issuing from an open gate, and, nearby, colorful figures jump out of the ground and then disappear back under the forest floor.
Presumably, the figures are embodiments of the spirit of fantasy revealing itself to a society finally capable of visualizing the connections between the fanciful and the real.
Shortly thereafter, a storm washes away a field uncovering an ancient buried forest. Representative of something fantastical lost in the past and now unearthed, the discovery coincides with the town’s yearly festival, which becomes a celebration of the removal of the barrier between the imagination and concrete reality.
Although the pic is set in the present, it feels like the action takes place in the 1950s, complete with elders playing croquet and Tadanobu Asano’s gentle rebel San-chan complaining that he’s lost faith in the older generation. The local festival, with everyone coming together in well-behaved unity, could easily have been pulled from a Japanese version of “Picnic,” minus the sexual tension.
As in his earlier pics like “Sleeping Man,” Oguri is still exploring how tradition bisects contemporary life. Here this is seen not only in the relationship between Machi and the elderly woman, but also in the way old legends are brought back to the surface, much as the buried forest gets uncovered.
Very deliberate pacing helps to lessen the dangers of sticky or over-precious material, although the wood sprites are an unfortunate inclusion. Given his desire to expand on these themes, however, it’s curious that Oguri chose a deliberately distancing style of lensing, shooting most scenes in either long or medium shots. Much is also filmed in twilight or darkness.
But, Oguri takes full advantage of the HD format to play with color tonalities, making the nighttime welcoming and warm.
Art directors Yoshinaga Yokoo and Koichi Takeuchi do beautiful work with the buried forest, which looks like a stark version of an act from Wagner’s “Ring.” Arvo Part’s music is especially appropriate.